Depression is an illness, but it’s mental, not physical. Of course you can experience physical symptoms associated with it such as anxiety or panic attacks, the former of which I have and continue to have from time to time due to certain triggers.
The biggest problem with it is that it is an invisible illness that people who haven’t suffered through it simply have no concept of how hard it is to bear. Someone telling you to ‘Keep your chin up’, or ‘You’ll be alright mate’ – these just won’t cut through the utter despair that depression is.
Unfortunately, my brain simply couldn’t ‘do’ a positive attitude because it was being directly undermined by low serotonin levels. I had a chemical imbalance in my brain that physically prevented me from being ‘up’. And for someone like me who loves life, who 99% of the time generally has a twinkle in his eye and an easy smile, not being able to pull myself out of a constant state of despair was an absolute nightmare.
You can’t possibly comprehend how bad it is, the depths you hit until you’ve had it…it has been a horrific experience.
How did I end up with depression?
I’m one of the luckiest people I know, with a loving family and a business I absolutely love being involved with. I live in an amazing city with incredible outdoorsy adventures that I am passionate about, all within half an hour’s drive. I can do all the amazing activities: surfing, mountain biking, trail running, beaching it, hiking. Auckland is just the most amazing place to live in. How could I possibly be depressed, when I have so much to be thankful for?
Well, in my case, it was triggered by an event. For others, it creeps up on them slowly. I broke up with someone I’d become intensely smitten with over a very short space of time, and losing her was what triggered a downward spiral that led to my depression.
It was the ‘trigger’, but it was only a small part of the cause – I also lost my mother to a terminal illness 15 months before, and my ex-girlfriend who was also (and continues to be) one of my best friends returned to the UK six months after Mum’s death, so my support network (the person I turned to for cuddles) was no longer available. These were the main underlying reasons for my depression.
How did I know it was depression?
Well, for starters, I was badly heartbroken. The pretty normal stuff you’d think, except it persisted for weeks, together with constant rumination and analysis (and I mean persistent, 24/7, every minute of the day, for over six weeks: an ongoing madness) over the situation I’d found myself in.
It was an irrational reaction that was off the chart to an event that millions of people all over the world must experience all the time, but mine was total and utter despair that I simply could not pull myself out of.
I lost my appetite, became an insomniac, and started suffering anxiety attacks, breaking down in tears, often in public places. It was relentless.
It was like I was a different person, someone who did not appreciate the things I used to love: trail running, small things like the wind on my face, a beautiful sunset. None of it brought me any joy or pleasure anymore.
There was just this layer of heaviness over my entire being that negated any rational ability to appreciate the beauty of simply being alive or to gain any rational perspective on the situation and what had to lead up to it. It was like I’d lost the twinkle in my eye, my smile, and I physically could not get them back, no matter what I did.
I exercised liked crazy, I went to grief counselling, I visited an aura-soma (colour) therapist, I started taking all the right foods for depression and brain health: B-complex and super-strength multivitamins, fish oil, magnesium. I even went to a hypnotherapist, but nothing could shake the despair.
It was like someone had slipped me a bad acid trip, and I was on constantly on it for two months, in a whole different, nightmarish reality.
How did I start to get better?
Well, for starters, I admitted I had a mental illness, which is incredibly hard to do, given the ridiculously unjust stigma it has. It is so much more common than you think. My family, who I flew back to the UK to be with for some unconditional love and support, made me realise this.
I started taking antidepressants. In my case Fluoxetine (Prozac), which I take at least two weeks to start kicking in. This means that once you start taking them, you know you’ve still got at least two more weeks of mental torture to go through before anything starts to happen.
About 10 days to the day after I’d started taking the antidepressants, I woke up one Sunday morning and it was like the fog had lifted. I suddenly had rational perspective on the situation I’d found myself in, the break-up with someone I’d only known for a very brief period, the compounded grief for my mother which I’d never properly dealt with, and an acceptance that I’d had a very stressful 18 months, during which I’d also started a new business with a couple of good friends.
The up didn’t last: I crashed that afternoon and had possibly the worst low of the entire two months that evening; lying on my bedroom floor in tears, quite literally yelling that I could not cope with the irrational thinking and madness any more.
Recovery is not a simple process, and it’s not in a straight line like healing from a cut. It’s all about ups and downs. That first up was now three weeks ago, but I’m still experiencing both, although the ups (or rather, a simple sense of normality) are tending to get longer in duration, and the downs a little shorter, less intense, and more manageable.
I take Diazepam to help me sleep and for anxiety, which is still triggered by certain thoughts, and which helps to relax those thoughts and general well-being. But alongside the right medication, you’ve got to make an effort to take other steps that help you recover, the most important for me the talking therapy.
Make sure you’ve got a good counsellor and if you don’t vibe with the first one, try another one, and another if you’re still not comfortable with them. They need to help you unpack the issues that have to lead to your depression slowly, sympathetically, and gently – and help you digest them, get a healthy perspective on them, dissolve them
It may take time – you might nail it in six sessions, it might take a whole lot more, but keep going back until you feel you have closure on whatever issues have to lead to your depression or can deal with them healthily under your own steam.
Jeremy Zinzan’s mental health journey started when he lost the plot in early 2013.